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Encountering the WWF

We are still getting used to the multiplicity of channels brought to us by Cable&Wireless. Determined to get back with the SuperBowl after ITV abruptly cut off his regulaar viewing of American football, Philip has been tempted to add SkySport to our list... which means that we're currently provided with hours of live coverage of the snooker - the Brit Open - usually at times when I want to be doing other things so I am having to be selective! Plus in-depth coverage of WWF "wrestling".

This last is a far cry from the ITV-Kent Walton popular prog of yesteryear. Actually, there's not a great deal of wrestling to be seen when it's on; it's become largely a form of performance-art with lots of hammy acting and Amurrican struttin' an' badmouthin' between acts of violence, like batting anyone in the ring with a folding chair, or even a handy sledgehammer.

There's probably more fighting done outside than in the ring, raging through the dressing rooms into the underground garage, the participants being hotly pursued by camera man and the ref, so that an official countdown can be made if anyone gets someone else floored (it doesn't seem to matter if it's not the original opponents - everyone seems free to join in).

All presented in a "soap" format, with a vague story-line based on the interactions and relationships (in and out of the ring) of all the groups involved, presided over by a brave matron from the management board of the WWF... Good for a laff on occasion, but a trifle wearing with repetition. And they certainly like to bombard viewers with selected highlights of "what has gone before"! ■

Letter to Brian Varley, August 1999

Philip had a solid couple of hours of American football ahead of him on SkySports, late evening, which kept him going until after midnight. When he retired, I caught the tail-end of the snooker highlights, and as I was feeling fairly wide-awake couldn't resist switching back to SkySports to see how the wrestling 'soap' was progressing.

This was a programme lasting from lam to 4am (!) titled "No Mercy'', supposedly all 'grudge' bouts to settle some of the on-going feuds. It was guaranteed low-class entertainment: there's a lady ex-champ who refuses to retire (allegedly in her sixties!), the Fabulous Moolah, who has been annoying the present WWF belt-holder, a glamorous young fighter who has announced that she'll see off the Fab Moolah for good.

However, the way things worked out, with one of Moolah's henchwomen doing a little dirty work outside the ring, Moolah got her opponent down for a count and returned to the dressing rooms, waving the belt in triumph, leaving the ex-champ in tears in a deserted ring. Wow.

There are quite a few women wrestlers on the US scene at present; indeed, they have upset the male TV Champion (everybody seems to be a champ with a belt to carry round these days), who insists that women have no place in the ring, and spends a lot of his time rushing in and chucking them out when he gets the chance. So he's been feuding with Chyna, a mature, well-developed and proficient lady who wrestles in a tight revealing black leather two-piece.

WWF had persuaded Good Housekeeping to sponsor a showdown bout between these two, and he turned up with a folding kitchen table which he set up at the ringside, lots of metal bins and utensils (including a kitchen sink), and supplies of flour and milk, presumably with the plan of demonstrating, in the spirit of the occasion, that woman's place is in the home.

However, while he was sorting out this motley collection with an assistant, Chyna comes bounding into the ring and catches him unawares, so the wrestling started in earnest right from the start, before the bins and utensils (Hollywood wares, evidently, from the way they promptly dented in use) were used to clout each other.

The lady gained the upperhand in this exchange, chucked him out of the ring, and the fight continued on the floor, with bags of flour being heaved around with great abandon. Chyna was well ahead on points, finally sweeping all the stuff off the kitchen table, and laying a dazed champ on it, prior to leaping from the ropes on to him for a coup-de-grace.

However, he rolled off so she crashed down and split the table in two. She was rolled back into the ring, stunned, while the champ and his assistant gleefully mixed milk&flour in a vast jug. By the time he returned to the ring, China had recovered and promptly turned the tables, and the jug of goo finished up being tipped over the champ.

However, while Chyna was celebrating, the champ grabbed his belt from the side of the ring and clobbered her with it while the ref was otherwise engaged, put her in a figure four leg lock and apparently won the bout. He was triumphantly waving the belt on his return to the dressing rooms when he was called back by the ref, as a panel of officials had protested over this questionable use of the WWF trophy, and decided that the match should continue, no doubt feeling that the sponsors might be upset at such low methods being used to get victory.

So he returned to the ring and had to face a furious China, who promptly got him down and counted out and was able to retire with the belt herself. Dunno how Mr Macho [Chris Jericho. Ed.] will ever live that down!

We did get some wrestling, too. The British Bulldog has been interfering with bouts in an effort to get a championship confrontation with The Rock, present all-conquering American hero. This campaign has been going on for some time: tonight was the great occasion. Touch and go at times, but he got beat in the end: well and truly. but I doubt that it'll solve anything ... I expect the Bulldog to be back rampaging again.

By this time it was turned 2am, so I packed it in - I'd have dearly loved to see the biggest grudge match of the evening: a bout between reigning champion TripleH, and an opponent he crippled a year or so ago, Steve Austin. Hard man Austin is raring to get back and exact his revenge, so this was to be the highlight of the "No Mercy" prog. Still, have to get some beauty sleep, and no doubt we shall see flashbacks of all this on future programmes. I hope.

Better entertainment than Princess Zena, or Hercules. Or Robin Hood. Does all this screen violence, undermining the notion of fair play, prepare the audience to face up to the realities of modern life? Someone, somewhere must have written a book about it. ■

Letter to Brian Varley, September/October 1999

Here it is, the Saturday after Bonfire Night . . .

Bright spot of the day was a highly entertaining episode of the WWF wrestling soap... gosh things are really getting out of hand, with the unpopular champ, Triple-H, ganging up with other malcontents against the WWF management, interfering in the (planned?) outcome of bouts, and generally starting to run things their way. The WWF bossman thought he had cooked up a plot to forestall these unwelcome intrusions and for a while it looked as though things were going his way. Then it all went horribly wrong...

Wow! Stay tuned for developments! ■

As you may have gathered the WWF soap has really begun to dominate our viewing. When faced with a limited choice of late evening entertainment, we settled for BBC2's epic on the rise and fall of Canadian wrestler Bret Hart, one-time WWF star, rather than the campness of Batman. Seems "Hitman" Hart comes from a large family of wrestlers (and the girls all married wrestlers as a matter of course, so the whole gang of current performers are apparently related in some way!), signed up with WWF around twenty years ago and has been groomed for stardom as WWF's Good Guy.

The decline in his fortunes started when Ted Turner took over WCW, and started to grab a large chunk of the TV audience. The WWF bossman, Vince McMahon, (who seems to write all the scripts and generally mastermind the action of his wrestlers) eventually decided that the fans were more captivated by the pranks of the real bad guys and insisted that Hart changed his image to restore their falling viewership.

Evidently Hart wasn't too keen on this, but made a few "put-down" speeches guaranteed to totally enrage patriotic US fans, then decided he didn't like being hated. So he wanted to retire as WWF champ. Then rumours that he intended defecting to WCW upset the WWF boss; however, it was finally agreed that he'd have a well-publicised final bout and then retire as undefeated WWF champion.

However, when it came to the crunch, there was a dramatic behind-the-scenes revision of this arranged scenario in the course of the bout so that our hero found himself unexpectedly counted out, defeated and forever banished from the hallowed portals of WWF...

Apparently Hart is now with WCW so we must look out for him, having had all this background story filled in courtesy of the BBC. Must admit that the WCW shows we've seen so far on Channel 5 do, on occasion, show actual bouts of wrestling in between the obviously staged show-biz performances which dominate WWF presentations. Though after seeing so many of the presentday WWF "villains" relaxing in harmonious family get-togethers in this BBC2 show, it becomes harder to take 'em seriously when they're shown misbehaving and acting mean—it's the same slightly undermining effect that the "how-it-was-done" dinosaur programme had on the main series!

It seems a real long while since Kent Walton presided over the Brit small-screen wrestling, and the likes of Mick McManus, Jackie Palo, the Royal Brothers, George Kidd, Les Kellett, and Adrian Street kept us entertained. Even recall fitting in visits to live bouts during several family holidays down in the West Country. Didn't realise the nostalgia would cling so long, and still keep me glued to the screen like this. Must dig out the book by Simon Garfield, The Wrestling, and refresh my memories... ■

When I returned home (from a trip to Manchester) I found Philip had been visiting the WWF website and left me a printout of the "script" for a 1 am to 3 am Smackdown! prog that we ignored the other night. Can't resist enclosing it for you. I like that last phrase: "a melee ensued". On WWF a melee always ensues! No doubt we will catch up with the excitement over the next week or so... ■

Letter to Brian Varley, November 1999

The main bright spot on TV has been the ongoing wrestling soap: the management problem at WWF has come to a crisis in Vince McMahon's continuing absence, with Stephanie, his revolting daughter, conspiring with the villainous Triple-H and his minions, to embarrass all the "good guys" on the staff. But a mutiny of the faithful led by Mankind (a wrestler who apparently started out as "Cactus Jack" I have memories that Cactus Jack appeared as a US guest on the British circuits, but he surely can't be that old!), seems just about to upset the apple cart. Although he managed to be sacked from WWF by the usurping management, he returned at the end of this week's instalment in time to put the kybosh on a dastardly plot to rob the current WWF champ of his belt by underhand means.

Wow, convoluted storyline but gripping stuff... am all agog to learn how things pan out next week and hope the goodies fare a little better than they have been doing of late.

Phew: guess it's about time Vince returned to join in the struggle again!

I'll shortly be able to sort the link between Cactus Jack and Mankind, while filling in some background on the WWF farce, as Philip has presented me with a copy of Mick Foley's "bestselling autobiography" - which has been getting well-publicised as part of the antics in the soap. Suspect Philip must have been investigating the WWI website in order to lay hands on this...!

LATER... Ah, it seems the Cactus Jack that I recall seeing on TV was Jack Foley, Mick's dad. Seems Mick took over the name when he started up in the business around 1986, but seems to have finally abandoned it during his career at WWF, when he emerged as Mankind...

But his book is a somewhat rambling account so I haven't sorted out all the convoluted strands of this colourful virtual-reality world of wrestling-entertainment. Yet. (Just checked Simon Garfield's book The Wrestling and find there is a passing mention of John Foley in a "roll of honour" read out by Pat Roach at a 1995 reunion party).

But enuff of my current obsession. ■

Letter to Brian Varley, December 1999/January 2000

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